Understanding the Evolution of Human Beings by Country

Posted on January 11, 2008  Comments (12)

graphic showing countries understanding of evolution I recently wrote about evolution and scientific literacy. The graph on the left shows the percentage of the population that understands evolution is a core scientific principle. The graph based on data from 2005 for 34 countries.

Blue indicates those that know that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.”
Yellow are those that are unsure
Red are those that don’t know that it is true

Evolution Less Accepted in U.S. Than Other Western Countries, Study Finds, from National Geographic News:

A study of several such surveys taken since 1985 has found that the United States ranks next to last in acceptance of evolution theory among nations polled. Researchers point out that the number of Americans who are uncertain about the theory’s validity has increased over the past 20 years.

The United States is is second to last place in this question of scientific literacy with only 40% of the population knowing the truth. The USA was between Cyprus and Turkey in this measure of understanding of scientific knowledge. The most knowledgeable countries have about twice the rate of knowledgeable respondents (with nearly 80% knowing).

Related: Scientific Illiteracy by Country (the USA managed to stay in the top 10 for overall scientific literacy rate of 8th graders in 2003) – Understanding Evolution (University of California at Berkeley)Scientifically IlliteracyRetrovirusesDNA Repair ArmyMassive Project Will Reveal How Humans Continue to EvolveGene Study Finds Cannibal PatternNigersaurusRare Chinese Mountain Cat

12 Responses to “Understanding the Evolution of Human Beings by Country”

  1. Maddy
    January 11th, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

    I am an Indian and I believe in evolution of human being. Culturally we have believed the existance of human from millions of years ago and humans were evolved from species. We do have the poems and epics expalining them and I was guessing atleast 80% of our people belive it. But your chart suprises me…I am not seeing my nation at all. What is the stand of my nation in your chart?

    also can you please let me know the source of this survey and how it was conducted?

  2. xm carreira
    January 13th, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    Hey, Spaniards scored better than most of our European neighbours. Not too bad!

  3. Brian Hollar
    January 13th, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

    I’m a former engineer turned economist who is now studying religious groups from an economic perspective (basically the topic of the sociology of religion, but using the tools of economic analysis). It seems that using “belief in evolution” as the proxy for scientific literacy is an extremely unscientific and biased measure. It skews the data horribly by measuring something that is controversial in many circles and purporting that those who disagree are educationally lacking.

    For example, I know many engineers who know far more about applied mathematics and science than 99% of the American (and world) population. Some of these same people are less than convinced about some of the claims of evolution. On the other hand, I also have many friends who struggle with algebra and know next to nothing about chemistry or physics (far less than the engineers), but who are absolutely convinced that evolution is a fact. According to this metric, they would appear more scientifically literate than the engineers.

    Incidentally, the rates of belief in evolution in the Western countries shown on this graph loosely correlate with national levels of church attendance (high rates of belief in evolution = low church attendance). However, sociological research shows no particular level of scientific illiteracy amongst church-goers beyond this one issue of evolution. America is far more religious than any other Western country or Japan and therefore shows up as having lower rates of belief in evolution. That does not imply low rates of scientific knowledge in any other area.

    The survey question used seems to have some serious problems with it. Many serious thinking people may answer this question about as “Not Sure”. The question also doesn’t ask if people understand the concept of evolution, but rather if they agree with its implications. Those are two different things. (For example, I can perfectly understand the precepts of Communism without believing them. Does that make me by definition illiterate about Communism?)

    To draw a quote your own post about what Dr. Simon Best said everyone should learn: “I should teach the world the basics of the scientific method per se, and the basic statistical tools that support it. I feel passionately that these are core tools of citizenship, that – once grasped – allow anyone to ask the right questions of scientists and their respective advocates and opponents, whether in the private or the public sector.”

    It’s important to extend the scientific method of inquiry to investigating societal and economic claims, rather than assuming our preconceptions of others to be true. We just might be surprised by what we discover that we never knew before and how many of our stereotypes of others are unfounded.

    The economics of religion is a burgeoning field. I am currently working on my PhD in Economics and this is one of my sub-disciplines. I have about 40 blog posts on this topic so far: http://thinkingonthemargin.blogspot.com/search/label/economics%20of%20religion?max-results=100.

    I’d also highly recommend reading some of Professor Larry Iannaccone’s excellent work on the for more on this: http://www.religionomics.com/old/erel/S2-Archives/S21_Publications.htm.

  4. curiouscat
    January 14th, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    Thanks for your comments.

    I would say the survey question is clear. I agree that asking whether people comprehend some topic or if they hold some believe are different questions. This survey is clearly asking whether people accept the implications of the evidence of evolution all around us specifically for the development of human beings. I am sure there are people that accept evolution as the explanation for all the other development of life but stop at the development of human beings. I would consider those people to be literate on the topic of evolution – where others chose to draw that line is up to them (as I see it).

    For some being unsure on this topic is seen as different than being unsure whether 5 * 5 = 25. Someone is not considered numerate if they can repeat that 5 * 5 = 25 but don’t understand what the necessary implications of that are. If they don’t understand that it doesn’t matter what day of the week you ask or in at what elevation or in what location or what year or it only applies inside school or…

    I can see that those taking the position that not accepting that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” but comprehending all the other implications of evolution is different than someone that doesn’t understand evolution at all.

    And I would agree it is amazing how scientifically naive we are in general (me too in many ways). We accept most science as those hundreds of years ago accepted the belief systems of the day. They were told say thunder was caused by say Zeus or whatever. Most of us now don’t think that. We think there is some scientific explanation. How many of us have much of a clue what that explanation is? how many of us can explain what evidence there is that we live on a sphere? Heck how many of us even know whether the earth revolves around the sun of the sun revolves around the earth? In a 1988 survey 21% in the USA got that wrong and 7% said they did not know. And though this “gives away” the answer to the last question, how long does it take for the earth to revolve around the sun?

    But since many don’t seem to really understand how scientific ideas are built they can then question certain basic conclusions while accepting others as facts. While some could questions evolution without just parroting what someone told them to believe I cannot see why those people would not be questioning all sorts of other science (and some do but relatively few)… There is certainly much more evidence in support of evolution than can possible be explained by anything but people parroting what they have been told to question. The evidence for evolution is absolutely overwhelming.

    It is certainly possible to get along perfectly fine now without much knowledge of science yourself. I think we would be in very bad shape if there were not a core group of scientists that did know these things and much more. And, if we fail to at least appreciate that, we can get in a great deal of trouble. If too many people have so little respect for science they don’t even know very basic concepts they are hostage to supporting those who profess patently false claims while we ignore those that understand the complex truth.

    It is possible to just repeat whatever you are told – that the earth is flat and you will fall off the edge if you go to far, or you live on a sphere, or light travels faster than sound, or babies come from storks or whatever. It might be true it might be false. Those who are illiterate you are hostage to being luckily enough to pick the right person to believe. History is littered with many examples of the tragic consequences of following senseless leaders.

    Frankly almost all of us do this for almost everything we believe in my opinion. But with some critical thinking ability and knowledge you can eliminate many many very weak claims. And by increasing your knowledge you increase your ability to judge correctly.

    For me science does a great job of explaining many things and stands up well to any challenges I can mount to the truthfulness of scientific claims. But there are plenty of people who attempt to mislead (in many ways) including claiming scientific backing for their claims. So without knowledge and thought you risk being played for a fool.

    I think it is great that we have freedom in the USA. But I am very concerned when so many are so ignorant of basic scientific facts when our lives are so dependent on scientific thinking. This is mainly because without scientific literacy in this day and age it is too easy to be fooled by those that intend to mislead you or those that are ignorant themselves (and you just don’t know).

    And it is my belief that scientific literacy makes it harder for you to be mislead on many topics not just scientific ones. Because you learn to judge based on cause and effect on repeatability on testable theories and understand the complex reality.

  5. Brian Hollar
    January 14th, 2008 @ 2:59 am

    Thanks for following up on my comment and for the comments on my blog. Great points about how there are many scientific explanations we simply don’t understand, but take on faith.

    A few comments to follow up. Evolution is a particularly touchy issue among many religious people in a way that hardly any scientific finding is. Many of them view admitting evolution as being true as the same as denying God exists or denying the Bible is true. When given that as an alternative, they’d much rather live with whatever (if any) cognitive dissonance is generated by denying evolution than renounce their religious beliefs. From an economist’s perspective, they’re making a fully rational choice. (Think of the costs and benefits they face in making such a decision.)

    I think early debates between religious people and popularizers of evolution were unfortunately confrontational which has created a history of animosity between the two groups that continues to this day. I think there’s culpability for this on both sides of the debate.

    I fully agree with you that it is good for people to be scientifically literate, but think it is most important that they get a good quantitative foundation (math and statistics) and the ability to think clearly, ask, and analyze questions. I taught math at a community college in Orlando, FL for a couple years and always struggled to motivate my students and to convey the power and usefulness of quantitative thinking.

    On the other hand, as much as I hate to admit it, I think most people can function quite well without high levels of mathematical and scientific prowess. Many examples of friends and family come to mind.

    One thought to leave you with — it is the freedom that you mentioned in the US that allows us to pursue the areas of learning that we most enjoy and value. This leads some into an in-depth study of science and technology and others to be welders, cooks, housewives, mechanics, doctors, nurses, etc. As people specialize more and more and exchange with one another, it leads to an ever-increasing depth and diversity of pursuits and products. This process has played a large role in how the US is able to sustain such a great system of innovation and the best university system in the world. It also attracts the best and the brightest minds to the US to pursue as many opportunities as their talents will take them. To destroy this freedom would be doing irreparable harm to the system that promotes and supports so much scientific discovery.

    Incidentally, this freedom and diversity of the market is also what allows many to get by without having a very developed level of math or science skills. I have some rudimentary knowledge of electrical engineering and computer programming, but would have a hard time telling you how the insides of my computer work. I’ve taken basic fluid dynamics, but wouldn’t be able to explain the details of how an F-15 performs and functions. I’m pretty useless when it comes to repairing cars, fixing TVs, or working on a construction site. I can’t operate a train, a plane, or a crane. Other than basic first aid, I’d be completely useless in giving medical care to someone. I have no idea how to cut hair, build furniture, or paint a portrait. Many others are similarly ignorant of how to calculate stress loads in a bridge, the gravitational pull of a black hole, or the diffusion rate of any number of chemical processes. And yet enough people seem to exist to who know how to do all of these jobs.

    The beauty of liberty and a free-market is that it allows salaries to vary to the point that “enough” people will pursue occupational paths that are needed for various tasks. If there aren’t enough scientists or engineers around, salaries for those jobs will rise and attract more people into those fields. I’d argue that we have enough people in these professions and that their jobs are akin in a certain sense to the train, plane, and crane operators. They are the “pilots of science” where most of society are the passengers. Not everyone has to understand science in order to benefit greatly from it. The analogy may not be precise of course, but I think it illustrates a valuable point. The cool and counter-intuitive implication of all of this is that one of the best ways to promote scientific progress is to promote the freedom that makes it possible.

    Where better scientific and quantitative understanding would be most advantageous would be in having a well-informed public that can easily train themselves to learn and adapt to new jobs in a changing economy. I’d also put strong emphasis on adding basic economics (microeconomics) to the list. It is something that I didn’t learn until well after I had graduated college and it completely changed the way I looked at the world. Economics is the social science equivalent of what physics is to science and much of human behavior (including business, politics, international relations, etc.) is difficult to fully understand without a basic understanding of economics. (I’d highly recommend “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman, “The Armchair Economist” by Steven Landsburg, and “Hidden Order” by David Friedman as three books to get a basic overview. “Principles of Economics” by Greg Mankiw is a probably the best introductory textbook on the market.)

    My wish list would be for all high-school students to have exposure to basic math (at least through algebra), statistics, economics, and the sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics). I think we (and they) would all be better for it. Having said that, I’d also say I’m not too concerned about many of us living in a world where we don’t understand everything – even the basics of many things. Our dynamic economic, political, legal, and social environment in the US is adaptive enough to allow us all to prosper with an ability to comprehend only a very limited part of the whole. That in and of itself is a magnificent marvel worthy of much scientific inquiry.

    P.S. – I love your blogs by the way!

  6. silencer
    January 14th, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

    Asking people to agree with the statement “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” is like offering them a drink of poisoned cola or poisoned milk. It is not a reflection of scientific knowledge or “literacy” as this author states, in fact it is a survey of OPINION only. Obviously this writer cannot distinguish between knowledge and opinion, and he warps the survey to fit his predetermined opinion. This is not just poor writing, this is journalistic corruption. This man is a functional idiot. If you don’t understand the difference either, you are just as stupid. Articles like this harms us all and the hard work we do to promote true science.

  7. Ben
    January 14th, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    I am a citizen of the United States. Unfortunitly your graph does not surprise me, however, it does sadden me greatly. I love my country but I fear for it. I fear that the religious morons of the country will manage to get their messed up ideas into our school system. If that happens I will leave this country for one that is not on crack.

  8. me
    January 14th, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    Interestingly enough, where is Iran, Iraq, saudi Arabia, North korea, South korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, China, and Australia. the most conservative estimate on countries I can find is that there are 191, if you don’t count republics and territories, so why are there only around 30 represented here? Seems strange….is this another case of “make the facts fit your objective”? or is it just another case of sloppy reporting?

  9. Firat
    March 8th, 2008 @ 7:20 am

    I’m from Turkey, it is funny seeing her just below USA 🙂

  10. CuriousCat: Laws of Physics May Need a Revision
    March 8th, 2008 @ 8:44 am

    “An interesting puzzle that illustrates how scientists attempt to confirm our understanding and real world results…”

  11. Zach
    December 23rd, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

    the only purpose of this figure is to mislead people and I am offended that it has been posted only make Americans seem as if they are dimwitted. Looking at the number of people surveyed (n) we see that it is entirely impossible that a useful and statistically valid conclusion could be drawn from these data! How can a sample size of 500-1400 per country provide a representative sample of countries home to millions!

  12. Anonymous
    November 24th, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    More people are dumping evolution because of the bacterium flagellum argument.

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